Needless to say, Christmas (‘Natale’ in Italian) is a unique experience in Milan. The city enters into the holiday spirit early in December, due to the double celebration of the local patron saint, Ambrogio, on 7th December and the Immaculate Conception on 8th December. The cold, foggy air of the Po valley often provides a wintry atmosphere, in a pleasant contrast with the golden, glittering lights of shops and street lights.
Two Christmas-themed events in particular mark the Milanese December: the first is Mercatino di Sant’Ambrogio, the patron saint’s market, better known as Oh Bej! Oh Bej! (How nice! How nice!). The tradition dates back to the 16th century. This is an exquisite local event taking place from 7th to 10th December all around the Sforza Castle (M1 Cairoli or Cadorna, or M2 Lanza), displaying and selling craftwork, plants, food and beverages. In regards to this, we recommend caldarroste (roasted chestnuts, wrapped in a paper cone and served hot as they come from the ember) and vin brulé (mulled wine), sweetened with sugar and scented with cloves, cinnamon, spices and fruits, which will keep your hands and stomach warm.
The second major attraction is L’Artigiano in Fiera (3rd – 11th December this year). To get there, you’ll have to catch the M1 (red) line all the way to its last stop at Rho-Milanofiera (tickets available at all newsagents’ and ticket machines). One more option is to reach the fair with Turin- or Salerno-bound Italo trains; as for cars, the fair is equipped with a large parking lot, costing between €2.50 per hour and € 16.50 as the maximum fare. You might also want to park your car at M1 Lampugnano or Molino Dorino stations.
This fair might get quite crowded, especially on weekends, but it’s worth a visit to venture into the Christmas traditions from all over the world. The fair’s structure hosts a stand from nearly every country in the world and combines traditional arts and crafts with an embarrassingly wide variety of ethnic food stands, so rich and tasty you’d wish you could try everything. This is why we advice you get here at 10.00, wander around and think of a possible menu for lunchtime. What’s most important is to make sure you get a map at the entrance, it’s extremely easy to get distracted and lose track of each other!
More markets are set up in Piazza Duomo, where a tall Christmas tree is decorated, as well as in Giardini Pubblici Indro Montanelli (M1 Porta Venezia), where an ice-skate rink is opened to the public, occasionally hosting figure-skating performances. If you have children, bring them along: there are lots of interactive activities, and they could get the chance to visit the Natural History Museum and the Planetarium, located within the park. In the same area, the main shopping street in Milan, Corso Buenos Aires (M1 Porta Venezia – Lima) opens up a Christmas Village, a temporary Christmas-themed shop. A similar project is hosted in the Ecliss store (Ripa di Porta Ticinese, 53), just a few steps away from the Navigli area.
For those interested in sustainable trade, instead, the Isola district (M3/M5 Zara, M5 Isola) is the place to be. Fonderia Napoleonica Eugenia hosts Green Market, displaying eco-friendly merchandise. Not far from there is the Alter Bej fair: a traditional Christmas market accompanied by performances of buskers.
Except for markets, what else does Milan offer at Christmas time?
This year, Comune di Milano is offering a real treat to visitors by bringing Piero della Francesca’s famous Madonna della Misericordia (1445-1472) to the city, namely to Palazzo Marino (piazza della Scala, 2), from 6th December to 8th January, 2017. It will be possible to visit it between 9:30 AM to 8 PM every day (open till 12 PM on 7th Dec., till 6 PM on 24th and 31st Dec., and it will be closed on Catholic holidays – 8th and 25th Dec., 1st and 6th Jan.).
Attending a mass in Milan during the Christmas period is a very interesting experience, made all the more unique by the specific Catholic tradition of the city, introduced by Sant’Ambrogio and hence named rito cattolico ambrosiano.
On Thursday, 22nd December, Teatro alla Scala will be hosting its traditional Christmas concert, directed this year by Christoph von Dohnányi, and Bruno Casoni directing the choir. In addition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will be performed. Tickets, ranging from €30 to €180, are still available at the theatre’s website.
What do Milanese people eat on Christmas day?
Some prefer to celebrate at night, before, or most likely after, the Christmas mass, while others prefer to wait for lunchtime on the 25th.
Either way, while Northern Italians “keep it simpler” than they do in the South, they do enjoy a hearty Christmas meal, featuring several tasty antipasti. These appetizers include mostarda, spicy candied fruit in a mustard pickle, prosciutto and other cured meats, small savoury pastries, paté, vitello tonnato, which is cold veal in tuna sauce, meat-stuffed ravioli and bollito misto, composed of boiled beef and poultry and served with parsley sauce (salsa verde)).
On Christmas Day, Italians indulge in spirits more than they usually do, as they are poured throughout their meals with nuts, almonds and dried dates served alongside, to be consumed between courses.
Make sure you don’t miss out on panettone, one of the most beloved Italian Christmas treats alongside its eternal “rival” pandoro (each has its own “squad” of aficionados, much like Inter and Milan football teams). Compared to its Verona-based nemesis, panettone is somewhat less fluffy and buttery, has a round shape, and is garnished with dried raisins and candied citrus zest. Apart from that, these two cakes are essentially similar, and are typically served together, sometimes with a mascarpone or zabaione cream to be dipped into.